But Spencer Howard didn’t have to deal with the “third deck” on Sunday at Citizens Bank Park.
Instead, he had to adjust to the bizarreness of fulfilling a childhood dream with a pandemic-emptied ballpark, fake crowd noise, and an irregular rotation routine.
However, Howard said the strangeness didn’t throw him off.
“The cardboard cutouts actually made a difference, surprisingly,” he said, after the game. The Phils were swept in their doubleheader against the Atlanta Braves, 5-2 and 8-0 — the latter being Howard’s game. “Coming back from in the summer camp when it was just the blue bleachers and then seeing the cardboard with the fan noises, it was OK actually.”
The Phils’ top pitching prospect wasn’t too shabby either, showing glimpses of why so many people are excited about him — capped by a strikeout of Marcell Ozuna in the fifth, which led to Ozuna slamming his bat out of frustration.
Manager Joe Girardi pulled Howard at that point with two outs in the fifth inning. It was his fourth strikeout of the night.
“Take your victories where you can get them,” Howard said. “That’s one of the high points of the day, for me, at least, and so to end on that with kind of a good taste in my mouth. Moving forward, it’ll be nice.”
The Phillies offense, which struggled all day Sunday, did the 24-year-old no favors. Howard took the loss, getting charged four runs over 4 ⅔, while giving up first-pitch home runs to Freddie Freeman and Ronald Acuña Jr.
“I wouldn’t say I felt sharp,” he admitted. “Just a little out of sync with mechanics. Left a lot of balls over the plate and mistakes get hit in the big leagues. So yeah, I’d say overall it was a decent day, but awesome to compete again.”
“For his first start, I thought he did pretty good,” noted Girardi. “He was able to throw strikes. The first two guys get on (in the first inning) and he’s able to not give up a run. He didn’t fall apart, which sometimes it’s tough to slow a young person’s mind down when it’s their first start or even their first year, and I thought he handled it pretty well.”
“I would feel worse if I felt really sharp and then pitched the same way I did, so I know what I need to work on and it’s just time to get to work,” Howard added.
So, when will Howard pitch next? Vince Velasquez was charged one earned run over four-plus innings, while striking out six in Game 1. Even though Velasquez had room for improvement, it was not clear after Sunday’s games who Girardi and the Phils will roll with next. That turn in the rotation is supposed to come around again on Friday.
“Right now, my plans are (Vince) to make that start,” Girardi said after Sunday’s second game. “I have not talked to anyone, but we’re going on a five-man rotation. Spencer came up and threw second part of a doubleheader. I’ll sit down and talk to our coaches, and (general manager) Matt (Klentak) and (assistant general manager) Ned (Rice), and we’ll make a decision.”
Sunday wasn’t picture-perfect for Howard. It wasn’t how he imagined it would go either. But it was a start, and the beginning of what’s hopefully a long career with the Phillies.
The organization hasn’t had a good history of developing young pitchers, but the 2017 second-round pick has a chance to be one of the few examples.
“I was hoping for a complete game shutout (Sunday),” Howard grinned. “That’s what everybody would dream about, but just being able to compete at the highest level — again, dream come true.”